Monday, October 31, 2005

Patriots 21, Bills 16 (10/30/2005)

As a public service to those of you who fell asleep before the Patriots scored a single point last night, they did win the game 21-16, with two late touchdowns and some nail-biting on defense at the end. Not a work of art by any means, but the local 11 made more of the important plays than they had been and got the other team out of their comfort zone -- something they've done only two other times this year, against Oakland and Pittsburgh. At 4-3, the Pats are atop the mighty AFC East, and the rest of the division is faltering (1-3 in non-division games over the last three weeks, and winning only 36% of their games for the season).

The offense was just inept for most of the game, and I was very disappointed. My long-time readers know that I was hoping the departure of Charlie Weis would mean the Patriots would score more points early in games after a bye week. But that certainly didn't happen last night. Under Bill Belichick, here's what they've scored in the first quarter of their games after a bye week: 0, 10, 0, 0, 3, 7, 0, 10, 0, 0, 0. That my friends, is a lot of zeroes. And even though they compiled a 9-2 record, it's still a lot of zeroes. And all those zeroes bring the average down to less than a field goal per quarter -- blech!

So my hope was that a new offensive coordinator would change bye week practices or work to develop a better plan of attack. Something, *anything*, to improve. But alas, in the first half the Patriots had the ball for less than 8 minutes, ran only 20 plays (to the Bills 39), and scored yet another big fat zero. Now, with the injuries on defense, I thought the Patriots would have to win some high-scoring, shootout type games. But they'll have to do better than 1-7 third down conversions, 20:40 of possession time for the game, and counting on opposition penalties for first downs.

The offense did end up with decent (if unspectacular) numbers: 4.2 yards a rush, 273 total yards, 7.5 yards per pass. Deion Branch caught one touchdown pass and had crucial catches in both other touchdown drives (for 37 and 22 yards, both excellent catches). Corey Dillon left his cane on the sideline and ended up with 72 yards and two touchdowns -- even though he was supposedly only 80% healthy -- and Dr. Brady sliced up the Bills late to end up with an efficient 14 for 21, 199 yards and the Branch touchdown. Brady did, however, miss several seemingly easy passes, threw a few screens at the receivers feet or over his head, and he had a fumble.

The O-line didn't really protect him well enough, giving up three sacks and multiple other pressures. Seems like Nick Kazcur might not be the answer at left tackle, and I encourage the Patriots to think again about putting Russ Hochstein in there. The O-line performed much better in the second half against Denver when Russ replaced Logan Mankins. The tights ends had some nice seal blocks, and Ben Watson in the backfield was one of their most successful formations. But overall, their problems on offense were spread evenly among the line, backs and receivers, and quarterback. The entire first half they were in a fog, and somehow they always ended up with an untimely penalty, bad pass, or sack.

So with 22:00 on the field in the first half, how did the defense hold the Bills to 3 points? Well, I thought they played pretty well under the circumstances, with an offense that couldn't give them a break or a lead. They returned to their bend-but-don't-break style, which can sometimes be frustrating but is far more effective than the don't-bend-just-break style that lost them the San Diego and Denver games. Three 11-play drives isn't what you hope for, but only three total points on those drives is better than you could expect. But you know it's a tough day at the office when a safety (Eugene Wilson), a cornerback (Asante Samuel), and a guy who had a stroke this year (Tedy Bruschi) are your surest tackers. Asante had a very good day, defensing a few passes, making tackles against the run, and recording the first secondary interception this year.

A lot of the rest of the defense was a mess, but I'd chalk about half of it up to being on the field for two-thirds of the game. Mike Vrabel had a lot of tackles but missed several. Vince Wilfork and the rest of the linemen got blown off the ball and pushed into their own linebackers, and that's just a recipe for disaster. (When Richard Seymour returns, can he play nose tackle? And defensive end? At the same time? Pretty please?!?!) Weekly whipping boy Duane Starks continues to build his reputation as Scott Pioli/Bill Belichick's worst pickup; I wouldn't be surprised to see castoff Hank Poteat or rookie Ellis Hobbs take his place soon.

But never forget to judge a defense on how many points they give up and how many turnovers they create. The Pats gave up 16 points (their first under-20 effort of the year), and they created two turnovers -- the last one allowing the offense to score the winning touchdown. Rosevelt Colvin was absent much of the game and had a stupid special teams penalty. But when a play had to be made, he stripped the Buffalo QB and recovered the fumble; and that was something missing from the first six games.

Special teams? They held Buffalo's return game pretty much in check and didn't have too many bad penalties. But that is overridden by boneheaded play at the end of the half. They tried to kick a field goal with as little time left on the clock as possible; but instead of calling a timeout when the play clock got near zero, they snapped the ball -- but it was just a second too late. Adam's field goal was good, but a delay of game penalty set them back five yards and he missed the next kick. Now, it might not seem like much, but those three points would have eliminated the need for the last Colvin caused-and-recovered fumble, as the Patriots would have led 17-16 after their second touchdown. But more importantly, you just don't want brain cramps to cost you points. And there's no excuse for this after the bye week.

So where does that leave us? Well, if Richard Seymour, Randall Gay, Kevin Faulk, Patrick Pass, and Matt Light continue to be missing from the lineup, it's going to be a tough road. The team really needs all of them back, but no one more than Richard. Their defense is hurting, and they need Richard to help pressure the quarterback. Give Peyton Manning 22:00 of first half possession, and I doubt you'll hold him to 3 points. The Patriots first place lead is a single game, and there's a showdown in Miami the week after the big Monday Nighter with the Colts. After that, the schedule gets easier, and I still think they'll win the AFC East by default. But a loss to Indy and/or Miami will make it much tighter than you'd like.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Under Belichick, the Patriots have scored no points in the first quarter 7 of their 11 games after a bye week. Isn't it about time he finally addressed this area of continuing concern?"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 4-3!

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Patriots Bye Week Update (10/26/2005)

So 6/16ths of the season is the books, and as you might expect with a 3-3 team, there's good news and bad news. Let me give you one piece of good news for each win and one piece of bad news for each loss.

Good news #1: They are 3-3, not 1-5. The Patriots could easily have lost the Pittsburgh and Atlanta games, and they'd have a huge hole to climb just to get to the playoffs. But at 3-3, they are atop the weakest AFC East I ever remember, and with an easier remaining schedule look poised to be in the hunt come January.

Good news #2: They can't help but get healthier. The names expected back soon are sorely needed: Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, Randall Gay, Tyrone Poole (at least I hope so), Kevin Faulk, Corey Dillon, and Troy Brown. Add to that some of the recently signed players who haven't played much, and this was the perfect week for a bye. The hurt players get extra time to heal and the new ones get extra time to prepare for the complexities of the offense and defense.

Good news #3: The offense and defense are still very good at in-game adjustments. Aside from the San Diego game, the Patriots are still the masters of in-game defensive adjustments, giving up 75 points in the first halves and only 48 in the second halves. Conversely, they scored only 48 points in the first halves of those games, and 73 in the second halves. They need is to do a better job with their game plan and/or early adjustments, but they still get better as the game go along.

Bad News #1: Big plays are killing them. For four years, the Pats have forced the opposition to work the ball downfield slowly. That worked because the more plays the other team runs, the more chances for a penalty, turnover, or for the drive to just stall. But when you give up plays of 50+ yards... well, all that planning kind of goes out the window, and the other team usually scores quickly. The Pats are in the middle of the pack, allowing 35% of third downs to be converted (15th), but when your opponents take big chunks of the field, they don't have very many third downs.

Bad News #2: They are producing no turnovers. What do Rodney Harrison, Asante Samuel, Duane Starks, Randall Gay, Eugene Wilson, Monty Beisel, Chad Brown, and Willie McGinest have in common? They all had at least one potential interception in their hands, and they all dropped it. After six games last year, the Pats had turned the ball over 10 times; this year it's 9. So why has their turnover differential gone from +2 to - 6? Plain and simple, this year they haven't made the play when turnovers were available. And they need to start making those plays.

Bad News #3: Rodney Harrison isn't walking through that door. Every team has injuries, but the Patriots started exactly half their Super Bowl starters in the same position against Denver, and that's just ridiculous. Last year, the national media cited injuries when praising the Carolina Panthers for coming back from a 1-5 start to make a run at playoffs. Without a doubt, the Patriots have had it worse this year. Fortunately, they're 3-3 and still have a realistic chance of making the playoffs.

So for the Patriots to use that opportunity and actually *get* to the playoffs, here's what I think has to change:

1. More running. Tom Brady has dropped back to pass 67% of the time this year, and the team's 494 yards rushing projects to 1,317 for the year. Compare that to the Atlanta Falcons, who have exactly 1,317 rushing yards in seven games, and you know the Pats need to run more. In their three wins, they controlled the clock, averaging 33:23 in time of possession and 98 yards rushing. In their three losses, it was 26:22 and 67. More running means more time of possession means more control of the game. Simple as that.

2. Utilize the tight ends in the passing game. The tight end position has accounted for only 15 catches for the year -- six of them coming in the Atlanta game. And forgotten man Christian Fauria has zero catches. The Pats need Bethel Johnson in the game, running a fly pattern every down, just to clear out some of the underneath coverage so the tight ends can make hay over the middle. I didn't think the Pats would miss David Patten, but with Johnson out so often (reports are he's in Bill Belichick's dog house), it's difficult to keep defenses honest.

3. Protect Tom Brady. He hasn't been sacked much, but he has been beaten up a lot. A stronger running game and a defense that doesn't put the Pats in a hole would be a nice start. But overall, the three new O-linemen need to pass block better. A good sign was how well Russ Hochstein played after Logan Mankins was thrown out of the Denver game. I expect to see more of Russ in the second half of the season.

4. Get healthy. This is especially true in the defensive secondary, where they barely dress enough players to use the nickel or dime defenses. But the absence of Seymour and Bruschi left two gaping holes in the front seven, leading to less QB pressure, more holes in the running game, and fewer turnovers. Get these two healthy, and the D-line will be fresher because they can rotate, Chad Brown or Mike Vrabel can return to outside linebacker, and the safeties can stay back in coverage rather than over-commit to stop the run. Bruschi can't play D-line or safety, but his presence can inspire enough confidence among the other players to allow them to just do their job and not worry about doing anyone else's.

5. Take the ball away. The football belongs to the team ends the play with it, not the one that starts the play with it, and a negative turnover ratio spells trouble for any chance the Pats might have to go far in the playoffs. There have been too many missed opportunities, and those misses have extended drives, which in turn tires out the defense, and all that snowballs into losses like the 41-17 Chargers game. Take the ball away, and get yourself off the field.

6. Don't panic. They lost the Denver and Carolina games because they did little things wrong. The linebackers over-pursued and opened up running lanes, and David Givens & Deion Branch dropped passes late in Denver. And Ben Watson fumbled away their chance to tie the game late against Carolina. A break here or there and they could have been 4-2 or 5-1. So don't panic; make small adjustments and when you're in a position to make the play, make it.

Change all that and the Patriots probably run the table and go 13-3. But chances are, they won't get everything fixed in a week, so here's how I see the rest of the schedule:
vs. Buffalo, the Bills just aren't good enough to present much of a threat. W
vs. Indianapolis, the Colts will be a touch challenge, especially if the Pats secondary isn't healthy. L
at Miami, this one feels dangerous, but I'm hesitant to predict two losses in a row. W (unless they beat Indy)
vs. New Orleans, Patriots win simply by outclassing the Saints. W
at Kansas City, balanced offenses have given them trouble. L
vs. New York Jets, division game at home against an inferior opponent. W
at Buffalo, the Bills just aren't good enough to present... wait, I think I already said that. W
vs. Tampa Bay, the Bucs are always, always terrible when the temperature is low. W
at New York Jets, late road division games are tough, but NY has no QB. W
vs. Miami, unless it means nothing to the Patriots, pencil in a win. W

That would get them to 10-5 or 11-5 (depending on the first Miami game), either of which should win the division. The AFC East just isn't that good right now.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Gotta love the AFC East. Patriots take the week off and they gain ground on all three of their division rivals."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 3-3!

Monday, October 17, 2005

Patriots 20, Broncos 28 (10/16/2005)

Boy, it's tough to know what to say about that one. The Patriots gave up some huge plays and dug a 28-3 hole from which they couldn't quite extricate themselves. The final was 28-20, but the game seemed like a massive blowout for the first three quarters. The loss gets the team to the bye week at 3-3, tied for first place in the AFC East with Buffalo, who beat the Jets on Sunday.

With all their success in recent years, the Pats still can't play *their* game against Denver. Under Bill Belichick, the team has thrived on getting a lead and forcing the opponent to take risks to come back -- and the Pats usually turn those risks into turnovers and even bigger leads. But I have to give the Broncos credit; head coach Mike Shanahan and offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak always devise good offensive game plans that give them the early lead, thus negating New England's greatest strength. It was the same old story yesterday, and it's why the Broncos are always tough on the Pats.

Given the absence of Corey Dillon, the Patriots actually ran the ball okay. Not a lot of running, mind you, but 4.7 yards a rush is pretty good; although 89 yards is less than you'd like. And you might hope for some more rushing yards early, but without Dillon, they'll take them wherever they can get them. Patrick Pass and Amos Zereoue were the only Patriots running backs to play, and Pass played the second half injured -- a gutty performance that shouldn't get lost in an otherwise poor offensive day. The O-line could not protect Tom Brady, Brady himself did not throw well early, the receivers ran some bad routes, and they also had some uncharacteristic drops. I'm talking about you, David Givens and Deion Branch. Branch's dropped touchdown pass didn't cost any points (the Pats scored two plays later), but both he and David Givens dropped passes late in the game with the Pats needing a play to keep their chances alive. And both were passes that I believe Troy Brown would have caught (Brown was out with a foot injury).

And Brady doesn't escape criticism either. His poor throwing early helped the Broncos build a 25-point lead, and his bad throws and a killer intentional grounding penalty late cost the team a chance to come back. Granted, he took some big hits, and it's tough to throw while lying on the turf, but not all the errant passes can be explained by the pressure. 52% completions just won't cut it, and to see receivers running open and the ball hitting five-yards in front of them was to know it would be a bad day. The one bright spot on offense was the play of the line in the second half. Maybe Russ Hochstein should replace Logan Mankins (who was ejected at the half) every week, because the line played much better with Hochstein in there.

The pass defense gave up big plays, just like last week against Atlanta. I would daresay the Patriots have already given up more plays of over 50 yards than they did all last season. The Patriots seemed to be trying a new defense, the 4-4-3 -- where they move a safety into a linebacker spot and leave their cornerbacks to fend for themselves. Granted, Duane Starks had another rough day, but how do you provide no safety help for a corner covering the Broncos best receiver over half the field? And how do you do the same thing against the Broncos second-best receiver on the next bloody drive??!! That secondary coach isn't doing the job Eric Mangini did last year, is he?

As for the non-existent run defense, it's discipline, discipline, discipline. The Broncos double-teamed Vince Wilfork on the nose all day long, so linebackers Mike Vrabel (switched to inside this week), Monty Beisel, and Chad Brown should have cleaned up in the running game. Unfortunately, they overpursued and left huge cutback lanes that the Bronco running backs gashed for 178 yards (twice the Patriots output for the game). Even without Tatum Bell's 68-yarder, the Pats gave up too many 8 - 15 yard runs -- and staying disciplined in your assignments is crucial against Denver. They feast on cutback lanes, and the Patriots kindly provided them at every possible moment. The Patriots linebackers are all veterans and should know better than to overpusue, especially against Denver.

Oh, and the pass rush wasn't anything spectacular, either. Given the commitment to stopping the run, you'd think there would enough players near the line to disrupt Jake Plummer, but of course, that was not the case. His uniform looked pretty clean at the end of the game, and several times he faked a handoff and swung back to the other side to find no one within 20 yards of him. That gave him plenty of time to find a receiver, throw it away, or run it on his own. Again, it's about staying within the scheme of the defense. When you leave your responsibilities because you don't trust the other players to take care of theirs, it's 11-man chaos.

Special teams must have played well, because they drew the bulk of the Bronco 11 penalties. Denver's best starting field position was their own 28, and they started four drives inside their own 20, three inside their 10. Didn't do much good, but it was very good special teams coverage. On the downside, Adam Vinatieri missed a difficult field goal just before the half that would have helped a lot in their attempted comeback, and the return game never provided any spark, despite having lots of practice returning kickoffs.

The coaches? Let me list the coaches doing a good job: defensive line coach Pepper Johnson and quarterbacks coach Josh McDaniels. The rest of them have not kept the team focused and disciplined enough in any of the past five games. The D-line and QB won the Pittsburgh game, and the QB won the Atlanta game. Without their stellar work in those two games, the Patriots could be 1-5. That's Arizona Cardinals territory, folks.

So where does that leave us? Well, as I said before, the Patriots are 3-3 and tied with Buffalo for first place atop the juggernaut AFC East. But they have an all-important, just-in-time, and much-needed bye week. I'll write up a semi-mid-season report as to the state of the team for next week, including a breakdown of what Tedy Bruschi's possible return could mean to the team. I'll also revisit the schedule given what we know about them and their opponents that we didn't know before the season started. Until then, enjoy the fall weather, get those outside chores done, and get ready for Halloween. Here's hoping the season isn't as scary as the annual "Simpsons Treehouse of Horror."

Weekly water-cooler wisdom: "Talk about a mediocre team. When you include the pre-season, the Patriots have gone: win, loss, win, loss, win, loss, win, loss, win, loss. Can 8-8 possibly win the AFC East? Mmmmmmmm... could be."

Keep the faith (for the time being),

- Scott

PS. 3-3!

Monday, October 10, 2005

Patriots 31, Falcons 28 (10/9/2005)

A few more games like that and I’ll be checking into a Meditation clinic or a hash bar. I mean, will these guys win an easy game this season? It’s another week of heart-stopping action for your New England Patriots: up by 14, then up by 1, then up by 15, then tied, then a last second field goal to beat Atlanta 31-28. The injured players didn’t return (for either team), and the win didn’t come easy, but it does put them into first place in their division. That’s something, right?

The Patriots offense was a big-play machine. Brady threw long passes to Deion Branch (51 yards), Daniel Graham (45 twice), Ben Watson (33), and Bethel Johnson (55), and he threw in a few 15 – 30 yarders for good measure. The Pats QB averaged a whopping 12.2 yards a pass, his best performance since… anyone want to guess… his best performance since… since… the fourth start of his career against the Colts, early in 2001 (12.5 yards a pass). And he did it yesterday under constant pressure and while taking solid shots half the time he dropped back.

The O-line did a fair job in pass protection, but earned their keep run blocking, with special assists from the Daniel Graham, David Givens, and Deion Branch, all of whom helped seal the corner for Corey Dillon to break outside. The Pats running game sprang to life, ripping some big gains and ending the day with 141 yards, all the while setting up the play-action fakes that allowed that 12.2 yards a pass. With both the running and passing games in sync, the Patriots could have blown the Falcons out if not for a tipped-ball INT and some poor officiating (I’ll get to that later).

The Patriots defense was obviously thrown by the absence of Michael Vick. He was injured last week, but was expected to play; right up until the night before. As often happens, his replacement benefited from having very little playing time, thus the Patriots could not study film and game plan for him. In a similar situation last year, Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers hammered the Pats in the regular season. The replacement QB (Matt Schaub) played well, hitting some deep seam patterns and making the Patriots pay for loading up against the run. In fact, I daresay the Patriots would have had an easier time with Vick, because at least they knew what he’d bring to the game and they had planned for it all week. And Vick is not a strong pocket passer.

Given all the uncertainty, and the continued injury status of the Patriots secondary (three of four Game 1 starters were out) and the fact that Richard Seymour didn’t play either – I think all in all the defense held up as well as could be expected. They played 4-3 most of the game, and held the league’s #1 rushing team to 116 yards (85 less than their season average coming in). Jarvis Green was serviceable in relief of Seymour, Willie McGinest was okay, and oft-beaten Duane Starks even made some nice plays. Hey, someone out there in Patriots uniforms held Atlanta to 5 of 13 third down conversions and less than 28 minutes of possession time.

But let’s face facts; if the Atlanta receivers didn’t drop 5 easy passes, we might have seen a different outcome. The secondary needs to get healthy and do it fast. Tyrone Poole and Randall Gay returned to practice last week, and they need at least one of them back on the field so they can move Duane Starks or Asante Samuel (who seems to have lost his way) to nickel back. And Monty Beisel and Chad Brown need to start earning their keep – no more excuses, guys, just make the plays in front of you. Next week in Denver, the Pats will face a balanced offense, which is what gave them fits against the Chargers, and if the Pats secondary is still hurtin’ and their linebackers don’t improve, it could be a long day.

As for the officials (I promised I’d get back to them), this was probably the worst officiated game I’ve seen in a few years. They blew at least two calls in Atlanta’s favor: on Atlanta’s first scoring drive, a bogus holding call changed an third and goal from the 8 yard line to a first and goal at the 2; and on their second one, they neglected to call an intentional grounding penalty just before Atlanta attempted their first field goal (a 33-yarder that would have been at least 40 yards with the penalty). They also messed up a simple out-of-bounds call that would have given Atlanta a chance to score with about 7:30 left in the game; and then had the audacity to claim it could not be reviewed because of a seemingly instantaneous whistle. Inadvertent whistle I’ve heard of, but I can’t see how an official can see a foot out of bounds and blow the whistle in the third-of-a-second the player needed to fall forward for the first down. Oh, and that’s not to mention the multiple holding calls they let Atlanta get away with on offense or the ticky-tack interference calls against the Pats. Just a bad day, I guess. Maybe they’ve got some injuries that we don’t know about – I just hope they get things straightened out before the Pats see this crew again.

The Pats actually had a great day on special teams. They hit so hard the Atlanta punt returner decided to fair catch twice when he didn’t have to and committed a personal foul on a third punt. The Falcons have very good return teams, but the Pats coverage was very good almost all the time. And then there was Adam Vinatieri, who came through in the clutch again. 19 game winners in his career – he has to be a hall of famer at this point, just has to be.

So where does that leave us? Well, Miami lost to Buffalo, which puts the Patriots alone atop the division at 3-2. They’ve got a tough game in Denver next week, and then their bye week. Again, I have an office mate who’s a Bronco fan, so I will not predict a Patriots loss next week. Just don’t be the mortgage on the Pats this week. Oh, and hope for Tyrone Poole, Randall Gay, and most of all, Richard Seymour to return for the game. But until then, enjoy the view from the top. The Patriots cannot enter their bye week at anything worse than 3-3, and the schedule is much, much easier after that.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: “Still too many penalties, still too many big rushing plays, still too many injuries, still not creating enough turnovers. Still got Brady, Belichick, and Vinatieri. I guess that’s enough.”

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 3-2!

Monday, October 3, 2005

Patriots 17, Chargers 41 (10/2/2005)

Let me be the first to report that the Patriots finally, *finally* took my advice and got the pesky penalty situation under control. After weeks with 7, 12, and 10 penalties, the Pats worked hard and committed only 4 penalties this week against the Chargers. 4 penalties!! That's a six fewer than they'd been averaging for the season, and I'd call that progress. Well, I'd call it progress if they hadn't gotten spanked by San Diego, 41-17, in the worst drubbing they've ever suffered at Gillette Stadium and their worst loss since 31-0 on opening day 2003.

Yesterday reminded me of the old days, the 1-15 days, the days when I'd trek out to the stadium and scream like a maniac, trying to exhort the defense, and all I'd get for my trouble was... well, a sore throat. The longer the game went on, the easier everything got for the Chargers, scoring on five straight possessions at one point, and the tougher everything got for the Pats. And the up-coming schedule is getting tougher, too. Two more road games before they get a bye week to lick their wounds and start the home-heavy part of the season (6 of their last 10 games will be at home).

For the offense, it was a tale of two halves. They were effective and efficient in the first half and downright pathetic in the second. In the first half, if not for a missed field goal, they would have scored on four of five possessions, they had no turnovers, zero penalties, and had a nice run/pass balance. But their opening second half drive was killed with a Corey Dillon 7-yard loss and a Ben Watson penalty. Two plays later they were punting the ball. And it didn't get better, with drives of 3, 5, 1, and 4 plays that all gave the ball right back to San Diego. And the Chargers took advantage, with long drives that gave them a 20:45 to 9:15 time of possession advantage for the half.

The O-line allowed a lot of pressure (though only one sack) and didn't open up many holes for the running game. Tom Brady was a bit off, but I can't remember too many bad decisions, and it's tough to throw when you're constantly getting hit. Honestly, aside from the line I didn't think the offense executed that poorly overall, so I suppose a lot of the blame should go to the non-existent offensive coordinator. So far this year, the Patriots opening drives have been fine, but they aren't adjusting as well as they have in the past. And they haven't used Corey Dillon or their tight ends nearly as much as they should. I think they should consider changing things up in the offensive coaching staff because they don't have the same edge they did in past seasons. Maybe just name someone interim offensive coordinator so everyone knows who is in charge. By the way, if you need more evidence of their poor adjustments, consider that their one (that's right one) third-down conversion in the second half was a pass by backup QB Matt Cassel.

The defense was obviously spent midway through the third quarter, and they had the offense to blame for some of that. But they didn't tackle well enough to get themselves off the field, and they have produced only three turnovers in four games (by comparison, they forced nine turnovers in the first four games of 2004). The secondary was in disarray yesterday, with Duane Starks, Chad Scott, and the usually steady Eugene Wilson making critical errors. Wilson was called for pass interference, but if he'd turned around he would have had an interception instead. Starks and Scott made one very good play and about five bad ones between them. They need Tyrone Poole to start playing or Randall Gay to return from injury; and they need them fast. And they might want to move Wilson back to Strong Safety, especially next week against another talented tight end. Starks or Scott are probably fine nickel or dime backs, but not ready for prime time, so getting starters healthy will be the best medicine for them.

As for the linebackers, only Willie McGinest (a monster early, invisible late) and Mike Vrabel had decent days. And even though Monte Beisel and Chad Brown didn't sign on to replace Tedy Bruschi and Ted Johnson, someone needs to tell them they have the starting job and need to make some plays. I think each had one decent play and spent the rest of the afternoon plugging the wrong hole, over-pursuing the play, and sucking wind like the rest of the defense. The vaunted defensive line wilted in the early-October sun, victims of their own inability to pressure the quarterback or slow the running game. Vince Wilfork spent most of the day pancaked by the Chargers center, and a cutback runner like LaDainian Tomlinson will always find holes in an over-pursuing defense. The Patriots rotated their D-line to keep them as fresh as possible, but to no avail. Richard Seymour and Jarvis Green were wasted by the end of the day.

Special teams had a mixed day, with the missed field goal but some outstanding kickoff coverage and some nice punting. Nothing special; no penalties of note; just sort of there.

So where does this leave us? Miami had a bye week, so they fall into first place by default (2-1 versus the Patriots 2-2). The rest of the division is just awful (as predicted), and the Pats will still likely outrun the competition for the division crown this year. But for the moment, they are in danger of finishing the first six weeks under .500. They're about to face the #1 and #3 rushing offenses in the NFL (Atlanta and Denver), so this might be a good time to switch to the 4-3 until they find a way to stop the run consistently. I think they'll take Atlanta, because they're one-dimensional (all run, no pass), and I'll let you know what I really think of the Broncos in next week's update.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The Patriots are lucky to be 2-2. They're last in the NFL in rushing offense, last in the AFC in scoring defense, and 14th in the AFC in giveaway/takeaway ratio. They played like crap against Oakland and could easily have lost to Pittsburgh."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 2-2!